Write Advice: romance author Heidi Rice on finding the confidence to write

For the launch of Writing Romance, we invited tutor and prolific romance novelist Heidi Rice to talk with our students about writing believable characters and relationships, gaining the confidence to write a whole novel, to how much help you can expect from your editor.

Heidi Rice

Q – Hi Heidi, thanks for coming along! I’m interested in how you create your characters. Do you use questionnaires, or other techniques to release your creativity?

Heidi Rice – It’s my pleasure, and that’s a great question. I’m a real pantser (i.e. seat of your pants writer), and I tend to write myself into the story. I’ll usually start with a basic opening hook idea, and from there I can build the characters organically.

Ultimately, who they are as people is all constructed from their pasts, their likes and dislikes, etc.

At first they just feel like a series of characteristics, but once they start to interact with each other I get a feel for their voice, and their backstory starts to develop.

Once I know that I can begin to understand who they really are, and what motivates them. But, that can be a constantly evolving thing. Sometimes I don’t know until right at the end a story why they have done something or other.

That’s what makes it exciting (and maddening). Obviously, though, every writer is different.

Now, I’m trying to plot more, because my pants-ing has frequently got me into tons of trouble. I try to combine both now, although the plotting usually really kicks in in the revision stage when I have to sort out the mess I’ve made. That’s the painful part!

Q – Do you find yourself often writing yourself into corners?

HR – Yes, frequently! Then I have to write myself out of it…I don’t use a questionnaire, because I find that kills my process, but some writers swear by it.

Q – I often find my characters are too much like me. I start out all fired up, and then they tend to withdraw like I do when faced with a serious situation. How do I break that mould?

HR – All my heroines are me to a certain extent, or an imaginary, more erudite me (with thinner thighs!). Don’t worry too much about that. I also have that same experience with every story I write — everything flows beautifully for the first few chapters, and then it all goes pear-shaped.

It’s like trying to wade through treacle – I just keep writing to get myself out of the hole. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The problem is always in the conflict, though. Usually the internal, but sometimes the external too.

That’s where revisions come in. I’m definitely one of those writers who can’t continue when I know something is wrong, so that can be frustrating. Sometimes it’s like hitting a brick wall and not knowing why I can’t get past it.

When that happens I might have to refer the work to my editor.

But, I’d say the fact you feel your characters withdrawing shows that you know when something is not working, so that’s a very useful skill that you can use.

I have a major ‘I am the worst writer ever’ attack with every book, followed by the inevitable ‘how did I ever do this before’ moment. Every writer I know does too. The important thing is to keep on writing.

It’s very hard before you get published to see that all the mistakes you make are teaching you something new.

– Heidi Rice

Q –  That’s fascinating Heidi. Do you think other writers experience the same notion, that each of their characters are at least in part a little of themselves?

HR – I think they do a little bit. I bet even Lee Child sees a bit of Jack Reacher in himself!

Q – “I feel like the worst writer in the world” – I often feel that way, too. I’m not bad doing short exercises, but actually putting it together into a whole book – forget it! That’s where it all falls down.

HR – I’ve read your writing on the course, and I think it’s brilliant. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know your characters. The thing about writing a whole book is you only discover the pitfalls and the things that can go wrong when you actually write the whole thing.

Once you’ve done that you have to write another, and another. It’s very hard before you get published to see that all the mistakes you make are teaching you something new.

I know a few people who got published on their first manuscript, and others who wrote 20 or more before they were picked up.

The interesting thing is that those people who had written 20 had a lot more experience and found it much easier to maintain a career, while those of us who hadn’t – I got published on my second – had to do all that learning on the job.

Just be aware that no writing is wasted. Also, you’ll still have these same problems with each new book, because each story is different.

Q – How much help does an editor actually give? I know they have a vested interest in making the book work, but I always assumed that they expected you to know what you’re doing and be able to come up with the goods!

HR – Of course you should know what you’re doing, but sometimes you need that extra perspective. You can get too close to your characters and not be able to see the bigger picture.

I’ve only had a couple of books that completely threw me and I had to send something unfinished saying ‘help, this isn’t working’, but that said, I’ve had other books I thought did work only to find out they didn’t. A good editor is worth their weight in gold.

I find for me that the story only flows when I have a good, firm grip on the conflict.

– Heidi Rice

Q – How are you at writing to deadlines?

HR – Firstly, I think it’s hard to give yourself deadlines before you’re published. While I try to write a book in four months now, sometimes it can take longer than that. Some books flow really easily – although I’ve not had many of those – and others are excruciating.

It all depends. I’m doing NaNoWriMo this month because I have to write a book in a month — don’t ask — and it’s going great at the moment. But, I may well hit a wall.

Q – Are you enjoying the NaNoWriMo experience?

HR – I did it a couple of years ago, and I’m enjoying it more this time, but I remember I stalled last time at about 22k words. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen here.

But, this is a story that I started and have had to completely rewrite (because I think my heroine may have been a psychopath!) and it’s working so much better now. It’s not exactly a new story.

Q – What would you say is the most important thing about writing a romance?

HR – I find for me that the story only flows when I have a good, firm grip on the conflict. But, the thing is it’s a constantly changing and evolving thing during the course of a romance.

As you peel off a new layer, sometimes you don’t know why your characters are doing what they’re doing, or you’ve got them doing the wrong thing.

In a romance the internal conflict is key, but the external conflict — especially in longer books — is also a really important part of the structure. Figuring out how to weave it in and out of the story of the relationship is the hard part.

Q – I often find my characters and writing are quite negative, and I think that might be a projection of me onto them. Have you got any advice to change that?

HR – That sounds like a great conflict for a heroine or hero, actually. Not all characters are going to be open and optimistic. In fact, some of the best characters are the opposite.

You should read Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels. It’s one of those standards of historical romance literature. The hero in that is so closed off he’s practically catatonic, but then the heroine begins to delve beneath the surface and discovers this unbelievably passionate man. It’s terrific.

Q – One thing I struggle with is writing sex scenes. How much is enough, or too much?

HR – I would say it all depends. Obviously, if you’re writing an erotic book the sex is likely to be more explicit/graphic, but I think it also needs to be a more integral part of the relationship to justify that.

The two erotic books I wrote (for Cosmo Red Hot Reads) had some pretty hot sex scenes, but these were couples that had built their whole relationships around sex, only to discover that their feelings started to get in the way.

Q – Heidi, you’ve been wonderful. Thank you for your great advice!

HR – You’ve been great too, and I’m glad I’ve been of help. Thank you!

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Meet your Course Director

Heidi Rice

Heidi Rice is a USA Today bestselling author of romantic novels, novellas and short stories.

She has sold over million copies of her books worldwide, had her stories translated into languages and has finaled in the Romance Writers of America’s RITA awards which recognise excellence in romance writing. 

Before becoming a published romance author, Heidi worked for twenty years as a film journalist for, among others, Radio Times, What’s on TV and the Daily Mail.

She has run numerous library workshops on writing romantic fiction including featuring in Islington Council’s Word Festival in 2013 and has previously worked as a reader for the Romantic Novelists Association’s New Writers’ Scheme.


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